It is delicious, the way all the little words we have can be stirred and cooked into something special, then seasoned and spiked until they taste better than just good. I think most writers open a fat bag of them, peer in, and start choosing.
Not me. I write the same way I bowl. I tend to rip open the package and huck hundreds of little pieces down whichever lane seems closest, as hard as I can, hoping their collective force has the power to override the tipsiest pins.
Honestly? I really like it that way, gutter balls and all. It’s the thrill of the thing. But if my stockbroker said buying strictly on impulse made him happy, I would probably fire him.
I spent the week at a foodwriters’ conference at The Greenbrier, the iconic West Virginian resort (slash Museum of Offensive Wallpaper), thinking about different ways to go about this whole writing business.
Talking about writing with a hundred other people seemed sort of outrageous to me, given the silence and solitude of the usual process. I had to pull back and figure out how all the little pearls of wisdom the coaches touched on – about word choice, organization, picking assignments, etc. – applied to me. Sometimes we actually wrote together, ready-set-go style in eight-minute segments, about whatever the previous seminar had inspired in us. Folks stood up afterward to share what they’d written, and invariably, I’d stare down at my scrawl and wonder how I’d wandered so far away from the original subject.
On Wednesday, we talked about how blogs and vlogs are changing the way all food-related content reaches its viewers, and I wrote for eight minutes about (I thought) a nose job:
I’ve always wanted a nose job. It might be considered wrong, altering the face nature gave me, but when I launch Messy Jessy, the vlog that chronicles what happens when an accident-prone cook brings new clothing into the kitchen, I’ll certainly have to think more about my appearance. It’ll be a pert little thing, one the camera can look straight down on, when it examines the tomato sauce smeared into my new sparkly white scarf, the flour wedged into that useless square pocket on the righthand side of my jeans, or the coffee grounds stuck in my stockings. Thank you, video technology, for my new nose. It will be perfect. And I can write it off.
It was just a crazy idea, born in the moment, out of frustration at having to spend $21.30 in the Greenbrier’s shoe shop for a pair of plain Jane black nylons I know I’ll ruin. (Really. I don’t own a television, and I’d prefer to avoid being on it. Ever, if possible.)
But I cursed myself. My father called me Messy Jessy growing up (oh, how I do loathe that name), and it appears I’ve brought the mess back.
On the way home yesterday, I sat next to a new friend on a flimsy little mosquito of a plane from Roanoke to Washington, DC. I’m a nervous, reluctant flyer, so I was grateful when she did her best to distract me. She’d shoved a few chocolate truffles into her carry-on at the hotel, and was in the process of digging the melting ones out of the depths of her computer case. She gave me one to hold. I obliged, and started excavating my own bag for the napkin she needed to wipe up. She asked me if she’d taken it the truffle back, and I said yes, because my hands were empty. Satisfied, she jumped subjects, chatting me up and out of my nervousness. (Thank you, Jill. It’s so embarrassing when I actually start yelping out loud during turbulence.)
Twenty minutes after an uneventful landing, a trip to the restroom, a dash into a store for water, and a 15-minute walk from one Dulles terminal to another, I discovered said truffle smeared across the back of my jeans.
This is not a stain. This is an embarrassment.
But it got better. I got bumped up to first class on my flight to Seattle, and found myself seated next to my district’s congressman.
From my window seat, I could see three other airplanes cruising along ahead, their jetstreams throwing pillows of white into the air so innocently, as if they were stirring up clouds, rather than poisoning the atmosphere. When I wasn’t hiding behind my computer screen, I stared out at them, thinking that if I was just still enough, my jeans and I might become invisible.
The flight attendant detailed the dinner menu to Mr. McDermott through her fanciest smile. “I’ll have the short ribs,” he said. She leveled me with her best Soup Lady stare. I waited for her to address me by name, or perhaps give me the same menu options, but apparently her breath was only useful for passengers holding public office, or perhaps those who hadn’t messed their pants. “Short ribs, please,” I mumbled.
I didn’t think once about the turbulence.
This morning, I stared into my neglected refrigerator for inspiration for a dessert to share with a neighbor, but the condiments just stared back, and suggested I try the pantry.
I decided to alter a coconut milk tapioca pudding I made last week, and reached for a bag of tapioca pearls. (The first go was fabulously fluffy, almost marshmallowy, but lime zest gave the whole thing an eery green shade that was less than appetizing.) I started cleaning up after the gingered version, and knocked the whole bag of tapioca pearls right over. Zillions of little white balls tumbled out, skittering over a placemat and onto the counter, pouring into the crack between the counter and the trash can, jumping into the spaces between our rattan-covered stools, and, yes, hiding in my sweatshirt pocket.
I think I’ll avoid food altogether for the next few days.
Ginger-Scented Tapioca Pudding (PDF)
When it comes to tapioca pudding, I don’t like adding anything that gets in the way of how the little pearls feel tumbling around in my mouth. Infused with just enough ginger and lemongrass, this coconut milk-based version, based loosely on Bob’s Red Mill’s recipe for the fluffy, old-fashioned kind, perks up the taste buds without sacrificing its hallmark texture. Soaking tapioca pearls in water before cooking encourages their natural starches to come out, making the pudding creamier, so be sure to let them sit for the full 30 minutes.
Note: If your stove’s lowest setting isn’t really, really low, you should probably be by the stove to mother your pudding as it simmers.
TIME: 30 minutes, plus soaking time
MAKES: 4 to 6 servings
1/3 cup small tapioca pearls
1 cup water
2 eggs, separated
1 (14-ounce) can light coconut milk
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 4-inch segment lemongrass, cut into 1” pieces
5 (1/4” thick) slices ginger (about the diameter of a quarter)
1/2 cup sugar
Combine the tapioca and the water in a small bowl, and set aside to soak for 30 minutes.
Whisk the egg yolks, coconut milk, and salt together in a medium saucepan. Add the tapioca (with its water), stir in the lemongrass and ginger, and bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to low and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring frequently, until thick.
Meanwhile, place the egg whites in the work bowl of a stand mixer. With the mixer on medium speed, add the sugar in a slow, steady stream, then increase speed to high and whip until soft peaks form, about 4 to 5 minutes. (The mixture will be smooth and shiny like meringue, but not nearly as stiff.)
Remove the lemongrass and ginger from the pudding, and stir a heaping 1/2 cup of the hot pudding into the egg white mixture. Fold the egg white mixture back into the saucepan, and cook another few minutes on low, stirring until the mixture is evenly blended. Scoop pudding into small bowls and serve warm or at room temperature.